Originally posted at WNY by member TonyO.
October 10, 2006
Injecting a Bold Shot of the New on the Upper East Side
A computer rendering of the roughly 30-story tower designed by Norman Foster for 980 Madison Avenue, between 76th and 77th Streets.
By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
I expect Norman Foster’s design for a new residential tower at 980 Madison Avenue to infuriate people. Rising out of the old Parke-Bernet Gallery building, a spare 1950 office building between 76th and 77th Streets, its interlocking elliptical forms throw down a challenge to a neighborhood known for an aversion to bold contemporary architecture.
The tower’s height, roughly 30 stories, hardly helps its cause; as with other luxury high rises reshaping the Manhattan skyline, its scale is clearly driven by economic considerations. Defenders will point out that the Carlyle Hotel across the street is slightly taller, but the reality is that the Carlyle’s setbacks make it virtually invisible when viewed from the street. Lord Foster’s tower would have a far stronger visual presence, soaring above the apartment buildings flanking it to the north and south.
With a little trimming, though, this could be the most handsome building to rise along Madison Avenue since the Whitney Museum of American Art was completed 40 years ago.
The project approaches the existing building with gentleness, respecting its integrity without resorting to historical mimicry. And its glistening forms reaffirm the city’s faith in progress, suggesting that Lord Foster has a better grip on what makes New York tick than architects who have worked in the city all their lives.
Designed by Walker & Poor, 980 Madison’s austere limestone facades and urban roof garden were meant to replicate the stylish look of Rockefeller Center, completed a decade earlier. But the building signals the end of an era, not a beginning. Its low, subdued profile is the antithesis of Rockefeller Center’s soaring monumentality, giving it a curious sense of incompleteness. And within two years Manhattan would move on to embrace International Style Modernism with the completion of Lever House.
The building suffered through a major renovation in 1960, when the roof garden was stripped away and replaced with a fifth floor whose horizontal windows clashed with the formal rhythm of the windows below. Yet even after the addition it retains a straightforward elegance, serving as a bridge between Beaux Arts monumentality and classical Modernism.
Lord Foster was enlisted as someone who has handled sensitive historic sites, even if the results have been somewhat mixed. In his recent addition to the Hearst Building on Eighth Avenue he plunged a faceted 46-story office tower through the original 1920’s structure with stunning force, and the collision between the two is mesmerizing. But an earlier design for the courtyard of the British Museum simply smoothed over the differences between old and new, an approach that benefited neither.
Here, Lord Foster approaches the 1950 building with care, as if leery of riling old ghosts. The unfortunate fifth-story addition from the 1960’s would be demolished to make way for a spectacular roof garden framed by lush grass. And the tower is set at the building’s northern edge, closer to 77th Street, giving it a connection to the block between Madison and Fifth Avenues and preserving some of the current views from the Carlyle Hotel.
Most ingenious is the delicate way Lord Foster links the old and new structures. A slender exposed elevator core rises from the old building, connecting the 77th Street lobby to the glass tower. The tower’s petal-shaped floors begin 30 feet above the old structure’s roof level, so that the two buildings barely seem to touch.
The tower’s underbelly forms an entrance canopy at one end of the garden. From the street it would seem as though the tower were floating above the old stone base, its elliptical shaft stretching up to the clouds.
As with all of Lord Foster’s recent buildings, the forms are generated by environmental as well as aesthetic considerations. The tower’s interlocking ellipses and uneven heights visually reduce its scale, giving it a more slender profile as it rises. The elegantly curved forms were designed to limit wind resistance; the fluted glass cladding will collect solar energy.
But the tower’s outsize height is a problem. Manhattan was shaped by the hubris of developers struggling against the constraints of the street grid, and its beauty is a result of wild juxtapositions of scales, styles and architectural periods. But I’m not sure a luxury high rise should be allowed the same freedom as a major civic building.
Unlike Renzo Piano’s planned addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art two blocks south, the Foster tower will serve the interests of a wealthy elite, not the public at large. We’re not talking about, say, a project that addresses the city’s desperate need for middle-class housing.
And the argument that the tower’s height is in keeping with the Carlyle’s is misleading. One of Madison Avenue’s most comforting features is the way its scale shifts as you walk north from the corporate towers of Midtown and approach its residential neighborhoods. You read the street differently as the pace and intensity slow.
The tower need not conform to the height levels of its neighbors, but it should at least establish a visual dialogue with the 16-story residential tower immediately to the north across 77th Street. The challenge will be to scale back the height without sacrificing the elegance of the tower’s slender proportions.
These decisions will play out in haggling between the developer, Aby Rosen, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, not in a design studio. (The building lies within the landmarked Upper East Side Historic District; the commission plans a public hearing on the project on Oct. 24.)
Lord Foster is not a social critic; his job, as he sees it, is to create an eloquent expression of his client’s values. What he has designed is a perfect monument for the emerging city of the enlightened megarich: environmentally aware, sensitive to history, confident of its place in the new world order, resistant to sacrifice.
Still, you cannot help but marvel at the project’s sophistication as a work of architecture.
A computer rendering, looking uptown, of Norman Foster’s elliptical tower rising on the west side of Madison Avenue.